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DEPUTIES WANT COURT TO DECIDE ISSUE

The union wants the county to settle a contract impasse; the sheriff disagrees.

The Pasco sheriff's deputies union hopes to set legal precedent in a lawsuit filed Wednesday against Sheriff Bob White and the County Commission.

The petition seeks to answer an open question in Florida: Who has the final say in an impasse between labor unions and management?

In this case, the Fraternal Order of Police says it should be the Pasco County Commission.

The Sheriff's Office says it should be the sheriff.

White and the union have been unable to agree on a labor contract since deputies voted to unionize in 2006. Two issues remain in dispute.

Deputies want the Sheriff's Office to provide gap insurance to cover their health care between retirement and when Medicare kicks in.

Also at issue is the agency's discipline process. The union favors more rights to appeal; White wants to retain discipline powers.

A third issue - the use of agency mailboxes and e-mail for distributing union literature - was settled by a state board in favor of White, who banned such uses.

Stuart Rosenfeldt, attorney for the Fraternal Order of Police, said the issues that remain unresolved are clearly under the purview of county commissioners. Gap insurance is a money matter and the commission must approve the sheriff's budget. And discipline is addressed in a county ordinance, which only the commission has the power to amend.

"The two things we want, the sheriff can't give us," Rosenfeldt said.

Further, he said, for White to have the final say is like "being your own appellate court of your own decision."

But Wayne Helsby, attorney for the sheriff, said that's the standard with any public employees union.

He said the Sheriff's Office will "absolutely" oppose the union's petition, which will likely go to a hearing before a circuit judge, and maintain that the sheriff should be the last legislative stop. "He's the one that is the constitutional officer elected by the people," Helsby said. "He's the one that controls the Sheriff's Office and makes decisions on things that are negotiated."

Helsby said the matter, which could affect deputies unions statewide, could soon be resolved by the Legislature. He knows of two proposed bills:

One deems the sheriff the ultimate authority. The other gives that role to the County Commission.

Molly Moorhead can be reached at moorhead@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6245.

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